Stained history, sorry future

Esther A. Armah

Akwaaba! The welcome to the Royals, Prince Charles and Camilla, set elements of Ghana alight ; some with anger, some with delight and it set tongues commentating. We saw the usual stuff of Royal visits to Africa; drums, dancing and broad smiles. I am not a monarchist, though I confess to loving the Royals newest addition, Meghan Markle, and have always had a soft spot for Prince Harry.

Giant billboards in Accra, with the smiling face of our President, Nana Akufo-Addo and these words penned in huge black letters: ‘Shared History, Shared Future’ stared down at us in advance of the Royals visit.

In truth, when it comes to Ghana and Britain, we have an untold history and an uncertain future.

This is not about the monarchy. This is not about Charles or Camilla. This is about Ghana, it is about us and our leadership. It is about a revisionist history, and the trouble it creates for a nation and its citizens.

My point is a simple one. The message on the billboards rewrote history. That is misleading and enables a problematic engagement between two nations still walking with the legacy of untreated traumas due to colonialism and enslavement. Prince Charles visited Osu Castle. The dungeons of Osu, Elmina and Cape Coast are a living memory of the horrors done in the name of economy. The stain of this history covers peoples, places and distorts possibilities. The Billboard is also so problematic because, our current President is a champion for education and its role in lifting entire generations out of certain poverty and into the possibility of prosperity.

I am writing this from Nigeria where the Royals just arrived as part of their West African tour, which will end with Gambia.

In December 2017, President Akufo-Addo, suited and standing next to French president, Emmanuel Macron, told a global audience of journalists that Ghana does not need aid to develop. His comments – widely applauded at the time – spoke to the specific narrative of treating France and other Western nations with a kind of prostrate benevolence when it comes to their relationship with African nations. Under their gaze, corners of our Continent are treated like a helpless child needing constant guidance, feeding and being patted on the head. It is a narrative against which many have railed. We have a president who schooled an audience in France regarding foreign aid in Ghana, and spoke truth to power.

That same president who spoke that truth to power is on billboards rewriting another truth about our history with Britain.

Why is our President willing to speak truth to power regarding aid in the presence of a French president, but unwilling to honor the horrors of a history between Britain and Ghana while welcoming the Royal Family to these shores?

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In Ghanaian-British journalist and author’s powerful book ‘Brit(ish), the excellent Afua Hirsch’s charts and explores the ways in which so many parts of Britain erase and ignore the history of the relationship that involves and engages Black people. I spoke with and interviewed Afua when she came to Ghana to launch the book. Her journey in exploring her own identity, the child of a Ghanaian mother and a Jewish father, offered readers an opportunity to better understand how Britain hides the ways in which Blackness shows up in British history.

One example is that of Robert Baden Powell, celebrated and lauded in British history as Founder of the Boy Scouts – considered the most British of institutions and author of the book ‘Scouting for Boys’. Hirsch’s book reveals that Baden-Powell’s scouting principles drew heavily on techniques used by Ashanti warriors whom he encountered during the short-lived Fourth Anglo-Ashanti war of 1865. Baden-Powell led an army as part of that war which led to the displacement of a people turning them into refugees – that included Afua’s own ancestors. This connection between the founder of Britain’s beloved Boys’ Scouts and Ashantis is not taught in British schools and was a revelation for Afua. Frankly, it was a revelation – one of many – for me regarding historical connections between Britain and Ghana.

These are untold, untaught histories.

From Ghana to Kenya.

Using the Right to Information Bill, a treasure trove of documents revealed extraordinary atrocities by the British in Kenya, after a group of Kenyan soldiers sued the British government for wounds they sustained during the Mau Mau and specifically between 1952 to 1960 during what was called The Mau Mau Uprising. The Mau Mau made up of predominantly Kikuyu tribe Kenyans, were freedom fighters organizing and fighting for self-governance. In the hands of British historians , that uprising was rewritten and characterized as brutality, rebellion and savagery. This was even after the publication of the book ‘Imperial Reckoning’. It documented horrific abuses by the British of the Kenyans during this time. The case of the soldiers, as reported in British newspapers, erased this history and implied that there was reasonable suspicion and that these soldiers may have suffered, but it was individual, rather than systemic and structural. The documents that emerged due to the RTI Bill confirmed what the soldiers alleged: widespread atrocities, brutal violence that included crushing testicles, horrific beatings, maimings, systemic oppression and violence. The British kept detailed records of these atrocities and then lied again and again about what happened in that history.

This matters. It is an example of the need for a full telling of a history of colonialism and brutality across the Continent.

Back to Ghana.

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Prince Charles stood on African soil and spoke specifically about the atrocities of those enslaved and the horror of this chapter of history between Ghana and Britian. He will return to his home soil, and a nation that hides, ignores and overlooks that very history in multiple ways.

It is this tension, this conflict regarding our history that impedes what the President calls a ‘shared future’ from a ‘shared history’.

In 2008, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of enslavement – wrongly accredited as being led by William Wilberforce – then prime minister Tony Blair made a statement condemning enslavement and describing it as a crime against humanity. The anniversary ignited an avalanche of programming about abolition from all over the UK. That was extraordinary given that British history still does not fully acknowledge or teach enslavement, and its depths across the country and its full economic, social and psychological impact.

We are doomed to repeat what we do not acknowledge, engage, tackle and heal from. Britain’s refusal to fully engage the horror of her history regarding racism and blackness reminds us that you must fight for the future you want – and that such a future is not shared, because the history has not been.

It is extraordinary. It is dangerous.

How might a future between Britain and Ghana be powerfully changed for the better with a full history told and taught to generations of both British and Ghanaian peoples? Not doing this does not serve prosperity, it empowers historical illiteracy which in turn leads to future poverty of mind, of our stories, of our economies and of our possibilities.

This need not be the case.

Truth need not be a weapon. It can be a shield that protects our future from being re-subjected to a bloody and brutal past. A distorted truth is a weapon. It is one that we create and then turn on ourselves, and wound our own future.

Trauma has legacy. Unacknowledged trauma has consequences. Untreated trauma can bleed and infect the reality we create.

When will those elected to lead us be willing to speak the whole truth of a history that is not shared and, in some cases not fully known, in order to secure a future that profits Ghana while building a fresh relationship rooted in truth, with Britain?


#theLwordGHANA is an innovative and interactive public mentoring project reimagining leadership in Ghana. It is created by EAA Media Productions. This is Season 1. Join LUCY QUIST, CEO Blue Quist Diamond and KATHLEEN ADDY, Deputy Chair of the National Commission for Civic Education in a conversation moderated by ESTHER ARMAH. It takes place on Wednesday 21st November 6pmSharp, British Council, Accra. FREE ADMISSION.

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